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A Hothouse of Food Activism

Windsor Activists Tackle Food Safety and Sovereignty

by Peter Biesterfeld

Shiv Chopra
Shiv Chopra

In late January, on a bitterly cold winter weekend, food activist group GMO-Free Windsor-Essex hosted three successive information nights on food safety and food sovereignty. Judging by the impressive turnout at all three events, it’s clear the food sovereignty revolution is smouldering in Windsor-Essex.

“Food sovereignty” is a term first coined in 1996 by leaders of Via Campesina, the international coalition of community-based agricultural producers. Food sovereignty refers to the right of the people—farmers, growers and consumers—to determine their own food system.

The group invited Health Canada whistleblower Shiv Chopra to be keynote speaker.

Chopra first made headlines in 1998 when he and fellow scientists exposed the corrupt practices of Health Canada’s drug approval process. His 340-pager, Corrupt to the Core—Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistleblower, is a damning account of the conduct of senior bureaucrats who pressured scientists to approve “multiple drugs of questionable safety.”

Nearly two hundred locals were in attendance. In addition to Chopra, organizers invited two local food activists to speak. Steve Green, who spoke first, is the general manager of the Downtown Windsor Farmers' Market, an urban gardener and leader in community-supported agriculture.

“When our farmers are threatened, when our farmers are being taken to court, when our farmers are trapped into a system that’s dependent on chemicals,” says Green, “I really hope that society wakes up and says it’s time to know what we’re not being told about our food system.”

Green advises, “If you want to know what’s in the food you buy, get to know your farmer.”

After a fiery speech about citizens taking back the food supply, growing their own and insisting on organic, the red-bearded food activist scans the audience. “You are the catalysts of change that we need to turn around the destruction of our food system,” says Green. “You are the people that need to start this food revolution.” He gives up the podium to roaring applause, whoops and cheers.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) established the Canadian Organics Standards in 2009 to move closer to the more stringent EU rules for exporting fruits and vegetables. To be labeled ‘organic’ in Canada, products must have at least 95 per cent organic content.

However, media reports reveal that the government food inspector’s enforcement of organic rules is not as rigorous as it should be. In January 2013, a CBC investigative report found that “Nearly half the organic fresh fruits and vegetables tested across Canada in the past two years contained pesticide residue,” some of which exceeded allowable limits.

According to CFIA rules, residue test results must be sent to a licensed organic certifier.  The third party certification agency should have demanded producers take corrective action. But according to the public broadcaster, “It was only after CBC News received a tip saying none of the test results had been referred to certification bodies that the CFIA acknowledged that this was the case.”

Under a Canada-U.S. mutual standards agreement, most products certified as organic in the U.S. are automatically certified organic in Canada.

This automatic compliance has compromised Canadian authority over public safety.  For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cleared the use of bovine growth hormone (BGH), but Canada has not. As a Health Canada scientist, Chopra stopped approval of BGH in 1993 for safety reasons. However, under free trade, BGH-tainted milk products still come into Canada from the US.

The second speaker is bee-farmer Tom Congdon, owner of Sunparlor Honey in Cottam, Ontario. His family has been in the honey-making business since 1916. He draws gasps from the audience when he explains how neonicotinoid-based pesticides are killing his bees. “We lost 41 percent of our colonies over the winter,” says Congdon. If he has another year like the last one, Congdon fears, Sunparlor Honey will go under.

Nearly every corn seed, canola seed and soybean seed in North America is treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide. Chemical residue from the treatments remains in the soil, gets into the water tables and contaminates the plant itself, killing pollinators and other beneficial insects and harming humans and wild life.

 In the European Union, 15 of 27 member states voted for restricted use of ‘neonics’ for two years because there is strong evidence linking the nicotine-like pesticides to “honey- bee colony collapse disorder.”

Congdon wants the Canadian government to follow suit and suspend the use of neonicotinoids produced mostly by Bayer and Syngenta. In an e-mail, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency writes, “Based on the currently available scientific information, and with the proactive mitigation measures we have put in place we do not feel a suspension is warranted at this time.” The agency says it continues to study the problem and is promoting safer seed planting and management practices.

Congden and the rest of the bee farming community say that’s not good enough. “These products are way too toxic to keep in the food system,” says Congden. “I feel totally let down by the government. They’re siding with big business and big chemical. They’re not looking after the best interests of Canadians.”

In 2004, Health Canada fired Shiv Chopra and two other scientists for insubordination.  Ten years later, Chopra is still in court fighting to get his job back. In the meantime he’s become world-renowned for his unwavering stance against government corruption and complicity in the contamination of the food supply. Chopra was on a food safety speaking tour of Alberta and British Columbia when he accepted the invitation from GMO-Free Windsor-Essex.

“In our food system we have five products,” says Chopra, “hormones, antibiotics, slaughterhouse waste, GMOs and pesticides. None of these products has ever been tested and verified by Health Canada as required under the law.”

Chopra details the harmful effects of each product and points his finger straight at his former bosses. “All these products are in our food supply and they have not been tested, when Health Canada is supposed to set the standards for it. Our Canadian food supply—as a result—has become the most toxic on earth.”

Chopra reiterates Steve Green’s call to action and says that citizens should demand the ‘five pillars’ be banned from the food supply. “I’m saying that if we take out of the food system those five things, automatically all food becomes organic. Labeling the product doesn’t help. That’s after the fact. We want these things banned.”

The crusading scientist’s long-term vision includes a mandatory school curriculum where all subjects are taught around agriculture.

This spring, GMO-Free Windsor-Essex has scheduled a full slate of information sessions and fundraisers around food education, including planting an organic GMO-free garden. Local politicians are invited.

“Elections are coming up and if politicians can’t get behind safe food, we’re not going to vote for them,” says Lisa Valente, a founding member of GMO-Free Windsor-Essex.

Some in the group were so inspired by Green, Congdon and Chopra they are launching a national organization, The Canadian Council on Food Sovereignty and Health.

Council director John Jones says, “We don't have all the answers, but someone has to continue the search for them, or individual sovereignty over our food will end.”


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Topics: Food
Tags: foodGMOs

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Companion Documentary RE GMO-Free Windsor

Things are heating up in Windsor. Food activist group GMO-Free Windsor-Essex is mobilizing county citizenry to vote for Food Safety and Food Sovereignty-minded politicians come October municipal elections. Here's the link to the event doc, Five Pillars :

http://toronto.mediacoop.ca/video/five-pillars-food-safety/22702

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